Regional transportation plans are stuck in the headlights of autonomous vehicles

By John Niles, End of Driving, 2017-09-15  |    Leave a comment

On Sep. 14th, Metrolinx, focusing on the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region (GTHA), released its draft Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). I highlighted selected passages relevant to thinking about autonomous vehicles.

I am concerned about a mismatch in the draft between current and expected demand, expected disruption from automation, and the projection of “priority bus systems”.

Here are the three passages (bolding is mine):

A: page 34 (RTP draft):

Travel in these fastgrowing travel markets outside of the city of Toronto has traditionally been dominated by the automobile, with transit making up only about 4% of trips in the morning peak period (see Figure 9). Overall, 25% of population growth and 20% of growth in transit trips to 2041 is projected to be in areas of the GTHA where the current transit mode share is less than 5%.

B: page 39 (RTP draft):

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) and connected vehicles are primed to have major implications on mobility and infrastructure in the GTHA. A major consulting firm predicts robo-taxis (autonomous cabs) will account for 27% of passenger travel by 2030, although other studies predict both a slower fleet turnover and higher share of private rather than shared automated vehicles.

C: page 67 (RTP draft):

A roll-out of the Priority Bus system could begin immediately and be completed within 10 years after capital and operating funds for the network are secured. Then at fixed intervals of 5 or 10 years, the state of the network and the performance of individual routes would be reviewed to determine where adjustments, particularly enhancements, were appropriate.

On reading these, it appears that Metrolinx does not recognize that robo-taxis described in [B] appeal to the same (low) target ridership as is described in [A] so that the bus systems (as described in [C]) which would arrive in full swing (optimistically according to the draft) circa 2030 and be updated every 5 years at best would never have riders. Robotaxi systems will likely have arrived several years earlier and be updatable in milliseconds.

I assume that different planners wrote different segments of this draft, making it hard for someone to correlate a full picture. The GTHA needs that full picture.

I am not anti-bus. Rather, I am being realistic about the expected transit disruption, regardless of its arrival date. Robo shuttles and robo taxis would disrupt traditional taxi and bus services first — before they disrupt private car ownership (car owners will buy and drive level 3 vehicles because level 4 vehicles will be speed and spatially constrained). By the time we do reach the consulting firm’s (Roland Berger) 27% PKT (in level 4) our bus systems (and the remaining taxi industry) will be history.

Metrolinx needs to leverage digital technology, not continue along a parallel path updating and extending 20th-century solutions while looking over its shoulder at the coming digitization of mobility.

Transit Parallelism will not work. Each rider can only choose one mode at a time and the new mobility players have the upper hand in a devastating way. Metrolinx either needs to join in or stop digital mobility (good luck with the latter). A half-in, half-out compromise will not serve our transportation needs.

Regional planners need to keep their bus systems robust until they don’t. Then they’ll need an attrition plan at the ready. Such an attrition plan is missing from the RTP draft, as it is from every other regional plan.

Regional planners everywhere are in a tough spot right now. And they will remain blinded for at least the next decade — or until a sooner day when it becomes clear that fixed-route large bus systems are no longer viable.